Monday, 25 June 2018

Ho Chi Minh weekender

We had one last chance to catch up with the Swedes (the couple we met in Nusa Lembongan) before they headed back to Europe, so Phil and I flew to our chosen meeting point - Ho Chi Minh - to spend some time with them over a weekend.

We rented an AirBnB in District 4 and arrived to beer, cider and a smorgers board of cheese. Couldn't have been happier to catch up with what feels like old friends and wax lyrical until the early hours.

Saturday was the only full day we all had in HCM so had a hearty breakfast at Elbow Room and walked around the city for a few hours. There's an amazing bar at the top of Centec Tower called Shri which the Swedes had been to before and recommended. We had fantastic views of the city and the cocktails arrived to the table in ships, handbags, scientific apparatus and other strange things. Each one came with a culture/history lesson about why it relates to Vietnam and if I remembered any I would love to tell you... but unfortunately the sun and cocktails got to my head far too much that day!

I had booked us on to a city food tour with Back of the Bike, and after the nightmare I'd had booking the tour in Dubai, I was a bit nervous we would have the same bad luck again. I needn't have worried. The tour was incredible and the highlight of our trip to HCM by far.

The four of us were picked up by local guides, all of whom were warm, friendly and extremely knowledgeable about Vietnam. We hopped on the back of their bikes and drove through the city to thr first of five food stops.

Stop 1 was an amazing papaya salad which we ate on mats at the side of the road. The lady who made it has been selling from the same spot for decades and a firm favourite for locals and tourists.

Stop 2 was called Cút Chiên Bơ and in my opinion, the best of the whole tour. Roasted quail in a Vietnamese baguette dipped in some kind of sweet and sticky sauce. So so good.

Stop 3 was crab and fish soup or bún riêu cua (I think) made with coconut milk and fat noodles. Delicious again, but to be honest we were all getting a bit full by this point. 

Stop 4 was a small version of an Indian dosa, called something like banh khot. Little fried pancakes with prawn and veggies, which then became the filling for a rice paper roll with added greens. We also had beetle nut leaf wrapped around beef and dipped in anchovy sauce which was pretty tasty.

Once we had finished, we were given the opportunity to try a duck embryo, something which is really common in Vietnam but in the words of my tour guide, 'rather challenging for Westerners'. We all declined to try it, but chose to watch our guide eat one instead. It was bizarre to see her eat the yolk which was full of veins, then the white of the egg which had already formed half a chick. Definitely not my thing and has probably put me off eating eggs for a while!

Stop 5 was the final stop and the desert course. We had black sticky rice, white sticky rice, coconut ice cream, frozen yogurt with mulberries and fruit. I absolutely love Vietnamese food and need to start cooking more of it back home.

I would highly recommend this tour to everyone visiting HCM. Not only do you get to try good local food, but you also get free flow beer (or soft drinks) and  hear all about the history and culture of the city from the guides.

My guide Tinh was telling me that each there are 24 districts in HCM and each is known for something different amongst the locals. I.e. the western expats live in D2, Koreans live in D7, the rough area is D4, Chinatown is D5, there are also districts for shopping, karaoke, love hotels etc. 

She also taught me a few Vietnamese words:
Yo - cheers
Hello - sing chow
Thanks - cam on
Pronounce 'Pho' as Pha, otherwise it means prostitute
Don't say 'yum' when something tastes good as it means 'horny'
Definitely don't say 'yum, Pha!'

After the tour we found a bar for a few cocktails then the Swedes wanted to go somewhere quiet so they could watch the Sweden vs Germany football match. Whilst the Swedes watched the match, I popped into the spa opposite for a pedicure. It was a bit of a shame the footy was on the one night we had together, as it kinda put a stop to the momentum of the evening. That said, it was so much fun to see them again, and it's such a shame we don't live closer so can get together more regularly.

We said our hungover goodbyes the next day, with a promise to visit Stockholm at some point in the not too distant future.

Friday, 8 June 2018

A stop-over in Dubai

We headed back to the UK for my brother's wedding and my best friend's Hen do. It was an EPIC two weeks but that's another story. What I want to write about here is our two day stop-over in Dubai...

We always fly Emirates so thought that it was about time to spend more than a couple of hours in the airport and see some of the city. We landed at about 1am and stayed in a fancy hotel, the Jumeriah Zabeel Sarayt was lavish and exactly what I imagined, but it was so big it felt a bit impersonal and I did kind of wish we had stayed in a smaller place like we usually do. We also had very loud neighbours which meant we only got a couple of hours kip. The breakfast the next day made up for it though. It was a buffet of every breakfast food we could want. We ate then sunbathed at the huge pool until the afternoon.

I had booked us onto an overnight desert safari tour as it had come highly recommended by friends and the internet in general. It was a bad start as the driver was a whopping two hours late, but we tried not to let is bother us too much and went on to have a good time quad biking and dune bashing in a 4x4. 

At sunset we ended up at a little camp site to eat some food and watch a fire breather/dancer. We were very confused by the fact that everyone else at the site drove off the minute the performances ended. We were the only tourists left along with our driver and a couple of people who must have worked there. We asked where our cabin was and were promptly told that we had to sleep on a mat on the sand. No privacy, no tent, no sleeping bag, no nothing. Gobsmacked and confused we left the campsite immediately and I've been trying to get reimbursed ever since. The company, Sougat Tourism, have been an absolute nightmare so I would strongly discourage anyone else booking with them if they can help it.

We booked a late room at a hotel next to Dubai Mall which was lovely, then went up the Burj Khalifa the next day to take in the view. I was surprised at how barren Dubai is. There are a few skyscrapers (most of which follow the architecture of other buildings like the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben), and between the skyscrapers are construction sites, dust and sand. I'm not sure what I expected, but I was generally quite underwhelmed by the place.

We flew back to the UK later the same day and had a whale of a time catching up with friends and family in sunny London and the West Country. The stark contrast between the vibrancy and beauty of England vs Dubai was huge. I'm so grateful I am able to travel around different parts of Asia, but even more grateful I am from such an incredible place as the UK!

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Nothing else mantas when you're in Nusa

Number one on my dive bucket list was to dive with manta rays, and this weekend it finally came true.

Making the most of the easter weekend, Phil and I spent 4 nights on Nusa Lembongan which is a stone's throw from Bali's main island. Most of Friday was spent traveling but were able to arrive at our beautiful Sukanusa Luxury Hut before sundown and scope out our little bit of the island. 

We had pre-booked two days of diving with Legend Diving as they came highly recommended on trip advisor. We had a fantastic local guide and went with a lovely Swedish couple who were also AOW PADIs.

The main dive spot for manta rays is Manta Point, but the guide had said they'd been no sightings there for three days so we were to hedge our bets at Manta Bay instead. This was great as it meant Manta Bay was relatively quiet when we arrived. 

We descended down to 20 metres and saw one manta at the surface. It was incredible but such a brief sighting so I was pretty disappointed to think that was all we would see. It turns out I shouldn't have given up hope, as once we were back on the boat we saw a big black fin cutting through the water, then another, then another. We grabbed our masks, jumped back into the ocean and suddenly a few centimetres in front of us were huge, three-metre manta rays. There must have been three or four of them and they kept circling around to swim right up to us before ducking down. It was surreal and one of the most magical moments of my life. I honestly have to keep reminding myself that it was real.

That evening we went out for dinner with the Swedish couple we met diving. It was fun but impossible trying to find any nightlife - it's definitely more of a chilled family place rather than the backpacker vibe of Gili T or Seminyak.

We had two more dives booked for the next day which were stunning. No more mantas but endless coral reefs and numerous turtles and fish. The coral around Nusa was some of the most colourful we've seen and it was good to see such a healthy reef compared to a lot of bleaching we've seen on other recent dives. 

The island is fairly small so we rented bicycles and headed to Mushroom Bay to meet the Swedes and proceeded to drink the bar dry until the early hours. They're traveling around Asia with plans for Singapore next week, so I'm thrilled we get to see them again so soon!

Our final day was spent eating everything there was to offer at Indiana Kenanga (a delicious French restaurant on the beach) and nursing our hangovers. The ocean breaks far out at low tide so the sunset and reflection was absolutely stunning.

Altogether an epic holiday to remember. Nusa Lembongan is a peaceful paradise and an absolute must for any diver who wants to see some gentle giant manta rays.

Monday, 5 March 2018

Japan: beautiful, weird and wonderful

Phil I were in Japan together just over two years ago in December 2016. It was one of the most incredible holidays, so I had high hopes for our return this year. 

We arrived at lunchtime for sushi and a wander around Harajuku, we then headed to Shinjuku for another delicious meal at a tiny teppanyaki restaurant called Teshu (or something similar). We sat along the bar and had the chef serve us wagyu sashimi, grilled seafood, beef and veggies, all cooked in front of us and absolutely delicious.

We ended the night at the famous New York bar at the Park Hyatt: Drinking cocktails, listening to a live jazz, and pretending we were Bill and Scarlett...

I felt pretty rough the following day so slept a lot whilst Phil watched the Tokyo marathon runners outside our hotel. We then headed to the samurai museum and met a couple of friends at a strange immersive restaurant called Alcatraz E.R in the evening.. Only in Japan.

Thankfully I felt alot better the next day for our trip to Nikko, Okunikko and Utsonamya. Nikko is where the Shogun shrines are and a place of tranquil beauty. Okunikko is a little further up in the mountains. It was freezing cold but amazing to see the huge icy waterfall and watch the sun set over the sulphur lake.

On the way back to Toyko we stopped in Utsonamya which is where Phil lived a couple of years ago. We ate at a famous gyoza restaurant, had a night-cap at a cute little bar and wandered through the miniature golden gai. I thought Utsonamya would be a quiet, sleepy town, but it had so much character and I can see why Phil loved living there so much.

The next day was Tuesday and our travel day to Hokkaido where we spent the remainder of our trip. We flew into Sapporo then took a scenic 3 hour bus ride into Niseko. I have never seen so much snow! The roads had been cleared to leave huge walls on either side  which must have been 10ft high.

Our pal had picked an awesome apartment for us all in Hirafu village, right next to the gondola. It was called Landmark View and I'd recommend anyone to stay there. We had dinner at a cute little bar called Big Foot and got into bed like excited children ready for skiing the next morning.

We got up early, tested our ski legs and sped up and down the mountains until the evening, stopping only to meet our two other pals who arrived at lunchtime to join us.

No research had been done about where to go in the evening so we were lucky to stumble upon a secret little place called Buddha Bar which was practically invisible from the outside. We ate a lot of gyoza and met a fun Aussie who insisted on doing everything backwards, because, that's what Aussies do right?!

Shitty weather hit us the next day so we were in limbo for a while until we learnt about some runs open in Hanazono around the side of the mountain. Phil and I accidentally skied down a black off-piste run which was terrifying but also a bit of a proud moment for us.

We all went to an onsen in the early evening to boil ourselves. They split the males and females and stipulate for everyone to be nude - a weird concept for us straight-laced Brits, especially sitting on a tiny stool afterwards to wash ourselves. Fun though and definitely helped the aches and pains.

We found another izakaya (a joint serving Japanese tapas) and met three lovely Aussie guys who we went onto Bar GYU+ with. A night of drinking, jumping into walls of ice and snowball fights ensued until sunrise...

Not much to comment on the next day as we nursed our hangovers and ate ramen but we were thankfully back on the slopes for our final day as weather has cleared up. I'm a bit of an idiot though... I kamikaze skied again and managed to injure my knee and tear by calf muscle which meant a few trips to the hospital when we'd landed back in Singapore. 

If I had to describe Japan in three words I would say it was beautiful, weird and wonderful. Despite the sickness and injury, it was an excellent trip and I'm sure we will return for skiing again next year.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Angkor Wat Temple Run

My plan is to run a half marathon every two years to keep my fitness in check and given my last half was in 2015, I was due a run before the new year. I had heard great things about the Angkor Wat run so I recruited some friends and together we flew to Cambodia to run 10k and 21k as the sun rose over the temples.

We arrived a day prior to the run so had lots of time relaxing by the pool at Sokha Angkor Hotel, eating delicious food at Vibe and Olive, and collecting our race packs. We also managed to get over to the temples for sunset which was stunning.

The race started at 6am so we had to get up at about 4am and battle to queues of tuk tuks and pedestrians leading into Angkor Wat. We were a bit disappointed that the route had changed this year due to a diplomatic event taking place at Angkor Wat, however it was still a beautiful run and we saw lots of other temples along the way.  I was hoping to finish in under 2hrs but ended up with a time of 2hrs 13mins in the end.

We celebrated (in silence because we were so exhausted) at a lovely brunch place called Sister Shrey and Phil and I said goodbye to our pals who had to fly back ready for work the next day.

As we had an extra couple of days off work we spent the next day at the floating village an hour out of town. I loved the people there, such a community feel and the kids were adorable. 

We had a Cambodian BBQ in the evening along Pub Street and enjoyed a beer (Phil) and a massage (me) before heading back.

It was so good to go back to Cambodia as my trip a few years ago was so short I really wasn't able to get a sense of the country at all. Siem Reap is a bustling but small city and I would happily go back again next week!

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

A whistle stop tour of Sri Lanka

Last week I met an old friend for a tornado trip of Sri Lanka. I flew 4 hours from Changi to Colombo and arrived just over an hour later thanks to the time difference.

We had booked a driver for the week as it seemed the easiest and most efficient way to see the island, particularly as we were doing a very peculiar route as a way to cram everything in to the trip. The first morning we were up before the sun and drove all the way to the east coast to Yala National Park. We hopped on a Jeep and drove around for hours spotting mongoose, deer, water buffalo, wild boar, elephants, black and red faced monkeys, painted storks, crocodiles and peacocks. I was gutted I didn't take my SLR as some of the things we saw were incredible. Everyone stopped to look at a leopard sitting in a tree in the distance, but to be honest it was so far away it could have been anything.

We had our first taste of Sri Lankan food that evening at Richards Cabanas. Curried beetroot, sweet potato and beans, daal, popadum, spicy onion relish and salty aubergine. It was all delicious!

The following day we were on the road again towards Nuwara Eliya. They call it Little England and I could see why. The little houses, windy streets and rolling hills really reminded me of home. It was also freezing cold which was a bit of a shock to the system after living in Singapore for so long! Along the way to NE we stopped off at a waterfall (I can't remember the name) and also Glenloch tea factory to learn about the different tea produced in the area. 

The next day we walked 19km around the Horton Plains at sunrise. Green valleys, flowing rivers, floating mist, the sound of frogs and birds waking up. It was bucolic.

One of the reasons the Horton Plains are so well known is due to the famed World's End and Cloud Forest. Essentially a cliff edge with clouds behind so you feel like everything ends right in front of you - the photo doesn't do it justice.

The next stop was Mirissa and the last place we visited together before I headed home and my pal continued on for another two weeks exploration of the island. We stayed at a hotel called Paradise Beach Club which was pretty good in comparison to the hostel we stayed in in NE. The pool backed onto the beach and we were able to sit about reading and relaxing. The initial idea was to go whale watching, I'm a bit disappointed I didn't go ahead and do it but it was lovely to relax and have no plans for a whole day.

I've spent the past year in Asia and before coming to Sri Lanka, I assumed it would look and feel different - less tropical perhaps. But driving through the country I kept forgetting where I was and thinking I was in Indo or Malaysia. Overall I did really enjoy Sri Lanka as it was good to go somewhere new and catch up with my pal but I do feel like we rushed around too much. If I was to do it again I'd pick a different route to avoid 7 hour car journeys!

Monday, 14 August 2017

Exploring Borneo

Our first stop was My Nature Resort in Sandakan, just 20mins from airport. It was beautiful. We relaxed by the pool, had cocktails on the veranda and at 6.30pm as the sun was setting, we watched huge red flying squirrels soar from one tree to another to begin their night of hunting. They're the size and weight of cats and can soar hundreds of metres. We were really lucky to see them.

The next morning we went to Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. Most of the orangutans there had been found as people's pets somewhere in Asia, and the idea of the centre is to slowly rehabilitate them into the wild. We saw a few of the the littluns at the nursery then onto the outdoor feeding platform where a mother and baby, along with a cheeky male stopped to grab a bite to eat. We also saw some of the rescued Sun Bears which are apparently the smallest species of bear.

That afternoon, we got a boat over Abai Lodge to have lunch, then on to Kilamantan River Lodge where we stayed for two nights. During our stay we took a boat out for a few river cruises and were lucky enough to see salt water crocodiles, long and short tailed macaws, proboscis monkeys, red leaf monkeys, wild orangutans, kingfishers, hornbills and a snake.

Saltwater crocodiles looks so different to ones I've seen before with spiny, dragon like tails. We were told that they're quite dangerous over here and get the local fisherman every now and then.

The proboscis monkeys were brilliant - making odd moaning noises to one another and wiggling their falic noses. They have two stomachs to process the leaves they eat, which gives them a beer-belly.

The red leaf monkeys were beautiful and bouncing around from tree to tree. They have amazing cheekbones, black faces and kind of a wise expression.

As well as the boat tours, we also took a trip to the Gomantong Caves to learn about the birds nests and see the bats leaving for their night of hunting. I have never seen so much poo. The cave was piled high with bat feaces and every wall was covered with spiders, cockroaches and other bugs. Looking up on one side was a huge black mass of birds and their nests, and on the other was a rippling expanse of over 2 million bats. As dusk came, the bats flew in a swarm up and out the top of the cave. It was cool to see, but I was a bit preoccupied with getting cockroaches in my shoes and bat poop on my head at that point.

We learnt that once the chicks have fledged their nests, they are harvested and sold to the Chinese for large sums of money. 1kg of nest costs between 3000-6000 ringitt. They put it in soups with lots of sugar and the idea is that it prevents aging. Who knows if it's true, but some people are making a lot of money from it!

We met some really cool people on the trip - Sarah and Dela - a couple from Cirencester, as well as a family from Essex.  We have plans to see Sarah and Dela at Japan 2020 Olympics. I hope we do.

The thing that has shocked me most about Borneo is the palm tree plantations. The plantations go on and on as far as the eye can see - and this is all at the expense of the natural rainforests. It's how the people of Borneo make their money, so who am I to say it's wrong. But it just doesn't feel right when so much wildlife lose their homes to palm trees producing oil to fry our chips and burgers in MacDonalds!

We got a blink-and-you-miss-it flight from Sandakan to Tawau then drove a couple of hours over to Semporna. The next morning we were up early again to get a boat over to Mabul where we would be staying for the next few days.

Mabul is a tiny little island just east of Borneo. We were diving with a company called Scuba Junkie which is based right next to the islands sea gypsies who use explosives to fish and leave all their trash in the ocean. Scuba Junkie do a weekly clean up of the surrounding oceans and the explosives have now been banned in the area. It's still not great though.

The diving was incredible. We saw huge Green and Hawksbill Turtles, Stingrays, and Eagle Ray, dancing Frog Fish, Trumpet and Cornet Fish, Moray Eels, and all the other usual suspects on the reef like Bat, Clown, Angel Fish etc. There were also invisible jellyfish which got me three separate times during my dives! 

Both Phil and I have developed a new respect for Nudibranches. Dive masters always bang on about them and we never understood why, but after seeing so many different colours, shapes and sizes on the trip I now kinda like them too.

Our last day of diving was in Sipadan and it was out of this world! We did 4 dives around the island, the best of which was called Barracuda Point.

We saw upwards of 50 turtles, a huge shoal of Barracuda and another whirlwind shoal of Jack Fish we got lost in.

There were also Black Tip, White Tip and Grey Reef Sharks. We swam into the blue at one point and saw a shoal/shiver of Grey Sharks, it was unreal.

My favourite were the huge Bumphead Parrot Fish which look quite scary with their beaks but are completely harmless. All they do is swim and poop which we got caught up in along the way..

I've never been on a trip like it - I feel really lucky to have seen such an array of beautiful birds, mammals and reptiles and fish in the wild!